March 8, 2010

This International Women's Day, March 8, candles will be lit across homes in Gaza – not in celebration of women, but because an electricity crisis has plunged Gazan families into darkness – and desperation.

According to Oxfam International, only 48% of the 3.5 million litres of fuel and 36% of the 1,750 tonnes of cooking gas needed per week in Gaza are being delivered.

Since the European Commission stopped the funding of fuel in the Gaza Strip, its one and only power plant has seen a severe shortage of fuel and it is now running on just one of four turbines.

Israeli authorities have shut down the Nahal Oz crossing, which was the main source of entry for cooking gas, forcing residents to rely on the much smaller supply trickling through Karem Shalom Crossing.

'In the absence of electricity or cooking gas, we have gone back to the middle ages style of life… My children gather old clothes from nearby streets to help build a fire. My children are now used to this kind of cooking', says Gazan mother Jameela Abu Shallouf, known as 'Um Ameer' (Mother of Ameer) to friends and family.

Jameela's story is painfully common around Gaza. Food cannot be stored in refrigerators, and many mothers resort to clay ovens and open fires to cook food for their families. Money is painstakingly saved to provide what little light can be found.

'At night, we light candles and set them on the ground inside the room, where my duty and their father's is to observe the candles and warn the children not to get too close to them,' she explains.

'Electricity is our life. I cannot provide hot water for my children to shower. I am very sad… When I look into the eyes of my children, I feel the desire to scream,' says Nahla, a 31-year-old mother of five.

'There is no cooking gas, so we use a kerosene stove despite the danger that my children and I face, as I heard that such stoves can cause a house fire,' says 29-year-old mother of three, Samar El Atamneh, known as 'Um Jamal'.

Driven by desperation, many families in Gaza purchase low-power generators- another dangerous alternative to darkness. These cheaper, low-power generators have resulted in carbon monoxide poisoning and generator fires, which in the past two months alone have claimed the lives of 15 people, including three children who were sleeping next to a generator, according to Oxfam International.

A further 75 people died due to generator leaks and fires last year.

Assistance is trickling down in the form of what little aid international humanitarian organisations manage to offer. But for Jameela, Nahla, Samar, and so many other mothers in Gaza, the future looks bleak.

All of their husbands are unemployed, and their families are reliant upon organisations such as World Vision and UNRWA, as well as the kindness and charity of family and friends.

In the words of Um Ameer, 'Every day, I witness my children growing up in an ongoing blockade and conflict. I always dream of a day such things end...I hope my children will have a better future.'